Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
The founding proprietor of Pennsylvania, Penn created the colony as a haven for Quakers in 1681.
The son of a famous British Admiral, William Penn was born in 1644, just before the English Revolution that overthrew King Charles I. After the restoration of the monarchy, Penn left the Anglican Church to become a Quaker, much to his family’s dismay. Nevertheless, the younger Penn was able to secure a royal grant to the territory that would become Pennsylvania. He founded the colony with the express intent of it being a land of religious tolerance, particularly for the persecuted Quakers, but also for other persecuted religious groups of Europe. After a lifetime of spreading the word of God and Quaker religious practice throughout Europe with the Society of Friends, and establishing Pennsylvania, he would return to England. Penn would preach for a few more years, face financial and political hardships, suffer several strokes and die in Britain in 1718.
William Penn was born in London, England, on October 14, 1644. His parents were Sir William Penn, an Admiral, knighted by King Charles II for service in the British Navy, and Margaret Jasper Vanderschuren Penn, the daughter of a Rotterdam merchant.
Sir William Penn was absent for the first two years of William’s life, a time in which the child developed smallpox, permanently losing most of his hair; he would wear a wig for the rest of his life. Absence was a trait that would prove common of the Admiral and, in the future, of Penn with his own family. To the young Penn, his father was, as biographer Catherine Peare wrote, “an almost remote, not-quite-real, romantic figure who descended upon his family for short exciting visits and then disappeared again.”
When Sir William Penn returned to England he moved his family to the countryside, Chigwell in Essex County. William was brought up with a fine education, learning Latin, Greek, English grammar, spelling and catechism. There he was introduced to Quakerism when his father entertained Thomas Loe, a Quaker preacher, at their home.
Penn attended Christ Church College, Oxford in 1660, (from which he was expelled for behaving radically), The Huguenot Academy of Saumur in 1662 to study divinity, and Lincoln’s Inn in 1665 to study law and build future political connections.
When England declared war against Holland for the second time in 1665, Sir William Penn removed his son from Lincoln’s Inn and took him aboard the Royal Charles to witness his father as Great Captain Commander of the ship. After several weeks, Sir William Penn sent his son back to England as a messenger to the King, a trip that served as Penn’s personal introduction to the monarchy.
As Sir William Penn aged, he handed over the responsibility of managing his estates in Ireland to Penn. In 1668, after traveling through Ireland tending to his father’s property disputes, Penn joined and soon became a leader of the Society of Friends and fought for their freedom, much to Sir William Penn’s dismay. Penn would subsequently be kicked out of his father’s home. Sir William Penn had much to be angry about as Penn’s religious affiliation with the Quakers threatened his father’s relationship with the Crown. The Crown saw Quakerism as a dissent from the order of the Church of England and therefore, a threat to the monarchy which shifted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism.
Penn published many pamphlets (often while in prison for offenses of preaching Quakerism) defending Quakers and Quakerism, such as the 1669 No Cross, No Crown... and became what Peare called “one of the most prolific and authoritative of the Quaker pamphleteers.”
He travelled extensively throughout Europe preaching Quakerism illegally. On one of his many travels spreading Quakerism, he met Gulielma Springett in the county of Buckinghamshire en route to Ireland. Springett was the step daughter of Penn’s associate Isaac Penington. After years of courting they declared their intent to wed, and in 1672 finally married. The two had eight children. Only three of their children, Springett, Laetitia, and William, lived to be adults.
At this point the Quakers had sought for over a decade a colony in America where they could practice their religion freely. When a dispute over land holdings in West New Jersey (then a separate colony from East New Jersey) between John Fenwick and Edward Billinge arose, the Quakers (preferring to settle their differences among themselves) had Penn settle the dispute in England. After Penn divided the land, he was chosen as leader of the colonization for his legal background and experience managing his father’s estates in Ireland. The Concessions and Agreements written for New Jersey, co-authored by Penn, were a model for the laws of that province and as Peare notes, “Quaker scholar Amelia Mott Gummere has said they (Concessions and Agreements), ‘gave the spirit of liberty a wider range than had heretofore been the case in any record of Anglo-Saxon organic law.’” Biographer John B. B. Trussell, Jr. points out in his book William Penn Architect of a Nation, that the work, “foreshadowed the structure [Penn] would later develop for Pennsylvania and, in many significant respects, the United States Constitution.”
The West New Jersey project was a success. The colony reported having fertile land, ample game and being stocked with goods. However, there wasn’t enough room for everyone from England, Germany, Scotland and Holland (places where Penn and his fellow Quakers had been spreading Quakerism). Penn then looked to the Crown for land west of the Delaware River.
Fortunately for the Quakers, the Crown owed the late Sir William Penn a debt for back-pay, wages from his days as Admiral. Penn, acting as agent of the Quakers, petitioned the King for “the piece of land lying west of the Delaware, north of Maryland, and extending as far north as plantable,” as payment. The King granted Penn the poorly-defined territory. As John A. Moretta states in his book, William Penn and the Quaker Legacy, “His [Penn’s] proprietary powers far exceeded those granted to any other individual,” and that “the generosity shown to Penn ran completely counter to what the Crown was doing elsewhere in North America.” The final document was drawn on March 4, 1681. Penn was now proprietor and Governor of the new colony, and the Quakers could now begin their “Religious Experiment.” The name “Pennsylvania” was insisted upon by the King as a tribute to Sir William Penn. Penn’s own choices for the land were “New Wales” and “Sylvania,” fearing that the name “Pennsylvania” would be looked at as Penn’s tribute to his own legacy.
Penn gave up a comfortable income of £1,500 a year from his father’s estate opting instead for turbulent economic adventures in colonizing parts of North America. Penn, running Pennsylvania out-of-pocket (as he repeatedly pointed out as something no other governor was doing) had trouble retrieving quitrents from Pennsylvania’s citizens and remained in debt for the bulk of his life.
After staying in England and writing a charter for Pennsylvania, Penn designed the city of Philadelphia, and ironed out other details of the governance of the land. The charter laid out the structure of the laws and governance of Pennsylvania. Trussell notes that while the new Province was openly accepting of all religions “no one could vote or hold office unless he professed his belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of the World.” Trussell also points out that there were prohibitions on gambling, drunkenness and profanity.
Penn arrived in America in October of 1682. He immediately declared justices of the peace and worked on creating positive relations between himself, local American Indians, and the governors of surrounding territories. When he returned to England three years later, Philadelphia had 2,500 citizens. Penn reluctantly left Pennsylvania, sorely needed in America to run the Pennsylvanian government and also in England to give aide to the Friends (Quakers), not to mention his wife and children.
Taking advantage of his friendship with King James II (James, the Duke of York), Penn persuaded the King to allow Quakers to practice their religion, temporarily relieving the strain of the English Quakers. Their freedom did not last long, because James II was exiled in 1685.
Penn was also receiving bad news from America. Those he left in charge of the government were squabbling, creating a rift in the colony. Penn wasn’t receiving any money from the citizens of Pennsylvania as he was facing mounting debt. Moreover, the governor of Maryland and Penn were in a dispute over the border of Pennsylvania that took years to solve. The existing border, the Mason Dixon Line, wouldn’t be drawn until 1768. On top of that, Penn was accused of treason by the new King William. For safety, Penn signed a deed to Philip Ford for the “entire province and territories,” of Pennsylvania before he went into hiding, waiting for the treason charge to blow over. Eventually the Friends successfully petitioned King William for a fair trial for Penn and he was cleared of all charges.
Although Penn was free, damage had been done. The crown had taken the colony under its control and appointed Benjamin Fletcher (Captain-General and Commander-in-Chief of New York) Captain-General Governor-in-Chief of Pennsylvania, treating the colonies in America as one for military security while at war with France. The crown, after seeing compliance of Pennsylvanians with supplying funds to the crown for war, restored Pennsylvania to Penn in 1694. Shortly after, Gulielma died that same year.
Penn thought the idea of uniting the colonies a good one, despite the plan’s ties to warfare. In 1697, he wrote “A Brief and Plain Scheme for Union.” As Trussell writes, “he saw it as being able to bring about facilitating inter-colonial trade, standardization of currency, adoption of mutually accommodating court procedures, cooperative repression of crime, and even easing the perennial shortage of currency.” The plan fell on deaf ears as the Crown saw it easier to deal with the colonies individually.
In 1696, Penn married a second wife, Hannah Callowhill, with whom he had seven children. Penn, scrambling to pay off his debt, went to Ireland to find his estates utterly worthless. Meanwhile he received word from Pennsylvania of violations of the Navigation Acts, illegal trading, privateering and pirates cruising the Atlantic coast. Pennsylvania’s government was in trouble.
Penn returned to Pennsylvania in November of 1699. By this time Philadelphia had a population of 5,000, the second largest city in America after Boston. He enforced trade and anti-pirate laws and acted as a mediator of tribal wars- an important task as the French were making great headway with the American Indians.
Penn was aging and looking for a successor. Unfortunately his eldest son William Jr. had proved to be an incompetent ruffian who couldn’t be trusted to the governorship of Pennsylvania.
Philip Ford then passed away, leaving in his will the interests of Pennsylvania to his family, unless Penn paid a sum of £11,000, an amount the man who increased the value of Pennsylvania substantially would never be able to afford while racked with mounting debt. Penn himself said, “O Pennsylvania! what hast thou cost me? Above thirty thousand pounds more than I ever got by it, two hazardous and most fatiguing voyages, my straits and slavery here, and my child’s soul almost…”
Penn returned to England and found himself in debtor’s prison (Although lodged outside of the prison, he had to stay within the general vicinity of the prison until the ordeal passed). Ford’s family was charging Penn an exorbitant amount of money for the deed to Pennsylvania, and the Crown eventually recognized this. The amount was reduced to “seven thousand six-hundred pounds,” according to Trussell, and was to be the final sum. Penn borrowed the money to pay for it. He then began to negotiate a sale of the colony to the Crown.
In the Spring of 1711, Penn suffered a minor stroke which prevented the sale of Pennsylvania to the Crown, a deal that had been in the works for some time, held up by negotiations of monetary worth and the future of Pennsylvania’s laws and governance. A second stroke in 1712 afflicted Penn, followed by a third and more serious stroke in January of 1713, rendering Penn unable to speak or think clearly, from which he never recovered. Penn died six years later, in 1718, in Ruscombe, Berkshire, England.
Penn’s essays and tracts were written to defend Quakers, the Society of Friends, and others who were oppressed by England’s laws. His writings were arguments with prominent political figures and discussions about the colonization of America. Penn wrote advocating the rights of the people of England and attacking government corruption. Penn also advocated and put forth laws in his territories concerning the basis of the constitution of the United States, the right to a fair trial, religious freedom, the democratic election of representatives, and the separation of church and state. Trussell also writes that, “the concepts he advanced and the practices he sought to establish represent many of the principles which, although widely considered radical in his own day, are accepted now as typifying some of the most fundamental elements of the American philosophy: he welcomed to his Province people of all national backgrounds; he promoted the principle of popular self-government; above all, he insisted on a degree of freedom of religion which existed almost nowhere else in the world.”
The Sandy Foundation Shaken; or, Those so Generally Believed and Applauded Doctrines of One God, Subsisting in Three Distinct and Separate Persons, the Impossibility of God’s Pardoning Sinners, without a Plenary Satisfaction, the Justification of Impure Persons by an Imputative Righteousness, Refuted.... London, 1668.
No Cross, No Crown: Or, Several Sober Reasons against Hat-Honour, Titular-Respects, You to a Single Person, with the Apparel and Recreations of the Times; Being Inconsistent with Scripture, Reason, and the Practice, as well as the Best heathens, as the Holy Men and Women of All Generations; And Consequently Fantastik, Impertinent and Sinfull.... London, 1669; revised and enlarged as No Cross, No Crown. A Discourse Shewing the Nature and Discipline of the Holy Cross of Christ, and That The Denyal of Self, and daily Bearing of Christ’s Cross, is the Alone Way to the Rest and Kingdom of God. To which are added, The Living and Dying Testimonies of Divers Persons of Fame and Learning, in favour of this Treatise. Printed for Mark Swanner and sold by A. Sowl, B. Clark, and J. Bringhurst, London, 1682; Printed by Rogers and Fowle, 1747.
Quakerism A New Nick-Name for Old Christianity: Being an Answer to a Book, Entituled, Quakerism No Christianity; Subscribed by J. Faldo.... London, 1672.
The Continued Cry of the Oppressed for Justice.... Part 1, London, 1675, Part 2, London, 1676.
One Project for the Good of England: That is Our Civil Union is Our Civil Safety.... London, 1679.
A Brief Account of the Province of Pennsilvania in America; Lately granted under the Great Seal of England to William Penn, &c. Together with Privileges and Powers Necessary to the Well Governing Thereof.... Printed and sold by B. Clark, London, 1682.
Garranty, John, and Marle Carnes, ed. American National Biography. Vol. 16, 291-294. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Vol. 16, 291-294.
“William Penn.” The Gale Literary Database: Contemporary Authors Online. 3 Mar. 2001. 29 Feb. 2012.
Moretta, John A. William Penn and the Quaker Legacy.New York: Longman Publishing Group, 2007.
Peare, Catherine Owens. William Penn. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1957.
Trussell, John B.B. William Penn Architect of a Nation. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1980.